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How climate change impacted the collapse of the Ming dynasty

Abstract

Based on the reconstructed temperatures, precipitation changes, and occurrences of extreme climate events, together with historical records on fiscal deterioration, food crises, and the frequencies of popular unrest, rebellions and wars, we identified three principal ways in which climate change contributed to the collapse in the Ming dynasty. Firstly, cooling, aridification, and desertification during a cold period destroyed the military farm system, which was the main supply system for the provisioning of government troops on the northern frontiers; these impacts increased the military expenditure from 64 % of total government expenditure in 1548–1569 to 76 % in 1570–1589 and thus aggravated the national fiscal crisis that occurred during the late Ming dynasty. Secondly, climate deterioration (e.g., cooling, aridification, and an increase in the frequencies of frost- and drought-related disasters, etc.) led to a 20–50 % reduction in the per capita production of raw grain in most areas of China, which resulted in widespread food crises and exacerbated the vulnerability of social structures during the last several decades of the Ming dynasty. Thirdly, the severe droughts occurring in 1627–1643 were a key trigger to the peasantry uprising. These droughts also played a significant role to promote the peasantry uprising, especially reviving the peasantry troops by recruitment of famine victims when they nearly perished in 1633 and 1638, and severely disrupting the food supply for the government troops, resulting in the final defeat of the government troops by the peasantry troops. This study contributes to an understanding of the climate-related mechanisms behind the collapse of the Ming dynasty, and provides a historical case study that enhances our understanding of the nature of interactions between climate change and social vulnerability.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See Huang Ming Jingshi Wenbian (Classic selection on governance on society and economy during Ming Dynasty), vol 61: Tunzheng Kao (On the military farm system governance).

  2. 2.

    See Ming Shilu: Shenzong Shilu (Annals in the Wanli Reign), Vol. 441

  3. 3.

    Recorded in Diao-Qiu-Za-Lu (A miscellaneous records for the period of later Ming), edited by a scholar named Liang Qingyuan, who lived in central Hebei Province in 1606–1683.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by grants from the China Global Change Research Program of the Ministry of Science and Technology (Grant No. 2010CB950103), the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) (Grant No. XDA05080100), and the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research “135” Project, CAS (Grant No. 2012ZD001).

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Correspondence to Quansheng Ge.

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Zheng, J., Xiao, L., Fang, X. et al. How climate change impacted the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Climatic Change 127, 169–182 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1244-7

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Keywords

  • Severe Drought
  • Social Vulnerability
  • North China Plain
  • Ming Dynasty
  • Duty Ratio